ARTnews, January 2006
Sam GilliamCorcoran Gallery of Art
Marsha Mateyka Gallery
Through January 22 
An early member of the Washington Color School in the 1960s, alongside Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, the Mississippi-born Sam Gilliam has turned paintings into sculptures and sculptures into installations. Along the way, he has managed to collapse all three mediums into his most distinctive work, curtains of sumptuously painted canvas, freed from the stretcher and draped from ropes in cool, muscular waves. The marvelous retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art includes a strong selection of Gilliam's drapes, but also demonstrates the artist's versatility. Works range from a couple of Arthur Dove-like watercolors from 1967 to multipaneled constructions from 2003 known as "slatts" -- minimalist wall hangings with thick coats of colorful, enamel-like paint.
Gilliam's drapes range from giant walls of fabric to human-sized robes hanging on hooks like discarded smocks. The largest ones conjure the theater, and like a live production, gain immediacy by finding new contours with each new arrangement: a given drape may not be recognizable from one installation to the next. These works seem alive, art liberated not just from the easel but from the static realm. Expertly curated by the Corcoran's Jonathan Binstock, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Gilliam, the show also reconsiders the artist's black paintings from the 1970s. With surfaces of pebbly pigment crosshatched as if by fingernails, these canvases explore the sculptural possibilities of paint and the esthetic reaches of black. Flat on the stretcher, these and some later paintings suggest Jasper Johns but with a freer, less calculated hand.
Gilliam's interest in carpentry crops up everywhere, from the clean edges of his wood paintings to the hinges that connect his panels -- a reference made explicit in his use of sawhorses to support some of his drapes.
A show (now closed) at Marsha Mateyka Gallery featured recent sculptures made of wood panels connected with hinges and painted with gaseous swirls of bright, industrial colors - cobalt, sulfur yellow, pink - that here and there play off against the wood grain like a jazz riff. Mixing tight, controlled forms with ecstatic use of paint, these gorgeous works echo Gilliam's drapes in their adjustability. (The artist does have a preferred arrangement for each piece, however, and the gallery displayed them accordingly.) Some evoked church altars or icons, fitting motifs for an artist whose work often transmits a sense of mystical devotion and fervor.
-- Roger Atwood